An Ecofeminist Reading of “A White Heron and Other Stories”

In the excerpt from A White Heron and Other Stories featured in the course pack, writer Sarah Orne Jewett tells the story of a wide-eyed young tomboy, Sylvia, exploring the grounds around her home in search of a prized white heron. The protagonist teams up with a travelling young man who shares her sense of wanderlust for the wilderness (and for that particular bird). It is through this relationship that the author demonstrates clearly defined if repressive gender roles, feminizing the concept of submissiveness while masculinizing attitudes of dominance over nature and competence in dealing with the challenges that nature presents.

When describing Sylvia and her guest’s quest to find the bird, Jewett writes that the girl “grieved because the longed-for white heron was elusive, but she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first.” Here, Sylvia automatically assumes the role of the submissive, weakened female in need of male guidance despite the fact that she is a comparative native to the property leading a guest around the grounds on which she lives. She also expresses  insecurity about her own ability to even speak. The author writes, “the sound of her own unquestioned voice would have terrified her.” This hints at the notion that women’s voiced (both figuratively and literally) are being silenced by a hegemonic masculine culture, and that this silencing perpetuates itself and is manifested in a sense of fear that it fosters within the minds of the victimized women.

At the end of the second chapter of the excerpt, Sylvia makes a somewhat surprising declaration of admiration for the boy about whom she’d earlier expressed fearful reservations. “Dear loyalty, that suffered a sharp pang as the guest went away and disappointed later in the day, that could have served and followed him and loved him as a dog loves!” Jewett writes on behalf of her timid heroine. Although such an expression of willingness to be totally subservient to a man like a dog is to her master might have been in keeping with the traditional roles of women in the 19th century, that sentence read in 2011 seems like an ironic snipe and those antiquated gender roles.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. A White Heron and Other Stories. Ch./Art: Ch 1 & 2 p. 12-13. pub. Houghton Mifflin Company 1886

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Although I do agree that in some ways Jewett demonstrates repressive gender roles, the little girl’s fear and submissiveness to the stranger etc. I do believe that there are several instances in the story that challenge those ideas. The one that stands out the most is the end when the little girl not only goes on her own to find the location of the white heron, but also does not betray the confidence of the white heron to the traveler despite of her fondness for him. She not only protects the white heron’s secret but she also shows a lot of agency.

    • I completely agree. I think an ecofeminist reading is approriate here, but i agree that she is not the submissive and docile female. She breaks those stereotypes but going out in the middle of the night to scout and, in the end, protect the white heron.

  2. I agree with the above comment that there are several instances of gender roles being challenged in the story. Another example would be the fact that the grand-mother is an independent woman living on her own, and then living with Sylvia. The fact that the household is two females living together (and you could throw in the cow with the group too, making it three females) illustrates the ability for women to live on their own without the aid of a man, something society at the time might have looked down on. Also, this living arrangement does fall into the trope of nature being a “female space,” and as you mentioned it fits in with the stereotype of associating women with nature.

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